About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reposting from 2009 - Geert Wilders wins UK appeal

I'm reposting this from several years ago.

So much time has passed that it would be miraculous if my views had not changed in the slightest - in particular, re the comments on Stein, I am now less comfortable about disinvitations than I once was. Stein's case was fairly special, though, or, rather, I think there is something special about inviting people not merely to give public lectures or take part in debates, but to be commencement or graduation speakers.

In any event, I believe that much of what I say here is still about right. It's also very relevant to some current debates in Australia.


Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders has won an appeal against the decision of the British Government to exclude him from the country.

While the ruling in Wilders' favour, made by an immigration tribunal, can still be appealed by the British government, this outcome is, for now, an important victory for freedom of speech.

The government's decision, made early this year, was under 2006 regulations that allow the exclusion of individuals who represent:

A genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society.

However, in overturning the government's decision, the tribunal emphasised that the right of freedom of expression was important in a democratic society, even though opinions were expressed in a way that was bound to cause offence. The tribunal said:

Substantial evidence of actual harm would be needed before it would be proper for a government to prevent the expression and discussion of matters that might form the opinions of legislators, policy makers and voters.

As I've said in the past, I doubt that I would like Wilders if I knew him. If he had political power in the Netherlands, he would likely follow extreme and highly undesirable policies. But the immigration tribunal got this case right. Wilders should not be barred from entering liberal democracies such as the UK.

Public authorities bear a very heavy burden of proof before they interfere with the liberties of individuals on the ground of things that the individuals have said. Technically, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right, but that is simplistic under contemporary conditions. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel to other countries for peaceful purposes such as putting our views on a range of issues, and provided we have complied with all the immigration formalities.

Yes, Wilders' film, Fitna, does tend to invite hostile attitudes to Islam by juxtaposing verses from the Koran with images relating to acts of terrorism and incitements to violence against infidels and apostates. Wilders has also made other public statements that are likely to provoke hostility and cause offence. It's even possible, I suppose, that somebody might be inspired by Wilders' statements and/or by seeing Fitna to take direct violent action against Muslims. However, I do not believe that Fitna - ambiguous as it is - calls for this or that Wilders has done so elsewhere. Fitna may provoke some generalised hostility, but there is no call for any specific violent act or any class of violent acts.

Millian liberals might ask themselves whether the sorts of principles advocated in On Liberty would justify suppression of Fitna or other attempts to gag Wilders (including the recent efforts to keep him out of the UK). I doubt it.

On a Millian approach, the state would be justified in stopping Geert Wilders from addressing an angry mob and stirring it up to lynch nearby Muslims. But it would not be justified in preventing him from putting his views peacefully to the general population (this includes giving a lecture of the usual kind which is not directed at inciting a riot or a lynching).

In the first case, there's no time to respond to the situation other than by stopping him and dispersing the lynch mob. The state needs to have laws to deal with these situations. In the other case, Wilders' views may be wrong or even dangerous, but they can always be argued against. Individuals who see Fitna, or read about Wilders' ideas, or attend his speeches or lectures are not likely to be caught up in the mentality of a mob. Any individuals who just might be inspired to lawlessness can be deterred in the same way as other individuals who are inspired to lawlessness by anything else that might have the same effect. Thus, this whole situation is remote from the kind of circumstance where Mill would countenance the use of state coercion to stop someone's free speech.

I'm not suggesting that there can never be cases that where the risk of violence is sufficiently high and imminent to justify some kind of coercive action by the state. But Wilders has been in the UK before without stirring up lynchings or riots. He has also spoken in the US - even after he was barred from the UK - and has not stirred up violence. I see no evidence that he has ever crossed the line into the kind of clear incitement that should be cognisable by the law.

Let's be clear: if someone invited Wilders to be, say, a commencement speaker at a university, that might be a poor decision, and we might have very good reason to protest to the university administration, as many of us did when such an invitation was extended to Ben Stein not very long ago. No one has any legitimate expectation of being granted a great privilege of that kind. People who have the power to extend a prestigious platform to highly-divisive (or worse) speakers ought to consider how their power could be put to better use. But that does not entail that the state should interfere. I'd be just as quick to defend Stein as I am to defend Wilders, if an attempt were made to exclude him from entry into a foreign country.

When the state starts to prosecute someone for what they've said, or when it tries to keep someone out of the country for nothing more than that, it needs compelling justification. If there is any ambiguity, we should lean towards freedom of speech.

Monday, September 28, 2015

University of Warwick Students' Union backs down over Namazie veto

In some good news, the University of Warwick Students' Union appears to have backed down unequivocally over its earlier decision to no-platform Maryam Namazie. They have indicated in their statement that they'll be apologising to her.

As far as I'm aware, we can take this at face value. That being so, the people who made the latest decision deserve to be commended.

There are more general questions about the circumstances in which it's okay to disinvite or veto (or no-platform) speakers. I'm leaning very heavily against doing so, though there will be extreme situations, and as I've often said I am not an absolutist about such issues. However, the Namazie case illustrates yet again how well-intentioned rules and restrictions can soon become overly broad, and even perverse, in their application by zealots.

Sometimes bad decisions can be reversed, as happened here, but not everyone has the time, energy, resources, and support for the fight.

It's best to subject restrictions such as these to careful and sceptical scrutiny when they are proposed in the first place. It's best, too, to have a bias toward very narrow application of such rules, once they're in place, restricting them as far as possible to extreme, unusual circumstances.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Maryam Namazie no-platformed at the University of Warwick

Maryam Namazie makes an essential point at the end of her chapter in 50 Voices of Disbelief (the book that I co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, published in 2009). It is, she insists, crucially important that we be free to criticise and ridicule religion, including Islam, and particularly political Islam:
Offensive or not, Islam and political Islam must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule, particularly in this day and age. Not a second passes without some atrocity being committed by this movement. It hangs people from cranes and lamp posts, it stones people to death—in the twenty-first century—with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used; it murders girls in cold blood at their school gates. It must be criticized and ridiculed because that is very often all that a resisting population has to oppose it. That is how, throughout history, reaction has been pushed back and citizens protected. And so it must again.
This is the sort of view that has apparently led to Namazie being no-platformed by the student body at the University of Warwick. But we must be free to put such views.

Maryam Namazie should be able to speak without impediment. She has an important viewpoint that warrants expression and discussion.

More generally, no-platformings and disinvitations have become a plague (and an embarrassment) at universities. Can they ever be justified? Yes, I can think of circumstances where they might be. I'm not an absolutist about this. I can think of one case, several years ago, where I supported a campaign for a disinvitation, and I can't work up too much guilt about it. I.e. it wasn't a bad call in the circumstances applying back then.

But in the social and political environment of 2015, when the whole business of no-platforming and "disinvitation season" has become such a problem, I would be unwilling to muddy the waters and support a disinvitation except if the most exceptional and extreme situation arose (e.g. someone blatantly inciting acts of violence). The priority right now is pretty much - just stop doing this.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Updates to my website and curriculum vitae

I've been updating my personal website, which was overdue for some love and care. Do feel free to check it out, including all the links. There are some good samples of my work on the site, as you'll see. There's also extensive (though incomplete) bibliographical information.

In particular, I've revised and updated my curriculum vitae for anybody who might be interested.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National - France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right - and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece  published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National - so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister - perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism - but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products - whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines - for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover - much less appreciate - complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt - e.g. in writing posts like this one - where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book review: Polly and the One and Only World, by Don Bredes (warning: some spoilers)

(Spoilers are relatively minor, but you are warned.)

Polly and the One and Only World is a delightful, if sometimes harrowing and emotionally painful, hybrid of science fiction and fantasy, aimed at a Young Adult audience. It is set in the dystopian landscape(s) of a near-future USA wrecked by cataclysmic events that are, perhaps wisely, never quite explained or defined. In this bleak future, the post-collapse remnants of the nation are ruled by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy.

The novel's main character, Polly Lightfoot, is a teenage witch - for, yes, this is a world where pagan magic is real, and the born-again theocrats are engaged throughout in a ruthless, systematic, and quite literal, witch hunt. As the story begins, Polly has been sent from her parents' village in Vermont to what they hope will be the obscurity and safety of her aunt and uncle's home in Orlando, Florida. As eventually becomes clear, she also has a mission: to keep safe a powerful, precious, very rare grimoire. Soon, however, she falls under suspicion and needs to escape. The narrative portrays her efforts to evade capture by emissaries of the Faith and Truth Board, and somehow find her way north across a ruined countryside peopled by slavers, scavengers, and betrayers.

Polly does have the assistance of her familiar: a clever and versatile raven called Balthazar. As she proceeds, she finds other helpers and companions, not all of whom betray her trust - though betrayal is more the default than otherwise in this paranoid, desperate, sadly diminished civilization. In particular, she builds a friendship with another remarkable teenager, Leon, who is the novel's secondary viewpoint character. Leon grows in wisdom and stature as events affect him and he responds to them as bravely as he can. Indeed, his character develops more than Polly's, though to be fair she started out as a resourceful young woman, while he is initially shown as callow and easily bullied.

Polly encounters frustrations (or worse) at every step of her journey, and she finds it almost impossible to make even slight progress. Her quest increasingly seems stillborn and futile, as disasters strike one after another.

Yet Polly never gives up. In addition to the theocrats -  and the many individuals who'd sell out heretics and witches to them - Polly and Leon are opposed by a group of sinister and well-connected cultists, including a corrupt witch who wants the grimoire for herself. The teenage protagonists have enormous odds to overcome, and every step on their path provides a struggle of its own.

Polly and the One and Only World is an unmistakably didactic novel, teaching the values of courage, loyalty, and perseverance. It straightforwardly denounces religious zealots and their inevitable cruelty. This is no mere allegory, since the theocrats of the book's desolate future America are all-too-recognisable descendants of today's Religious Right. As the back-cover blurb suggests, the book is designed to "inspire young readers to appreciate their own freedoms and their own ability, today, to work for positive social and political change."

All of this might be condemned as heavy-handed and simple-minded by opponents of its message. If so, I choose to differ. The narrative is no less absorbing for its obvious moral and political implications, and its lessons emerge naturally from the overall story arc, the page-turning action, and the convincing dialogue between an odd mix of characters. Despite his evident - not to mention urgent - thematic purpose, Brede never gives an impression of merely preaching at us. Instead, Polly and the One and Only World is vividly written and always suspenseful; the story never suffers for the sake of its message.

In particular, Bredes is convincing in the way he depicts the various witches' spells. Although the effects (such as flying or shrinking) are dramatic, they appear realistic, largely through a narrative focus on the details and difficulties involved in working magic. There is much to learn here from the literary craftsmanship of a skilled novelist.

If the book has a fault it lies in the hasty - and perhaps unclear - ending. There is little in the way of closure or explanation, which may, of course, contribute in its own way to Bredes' purposes. The struggles continues, sad to say, as such struggles tend to in ordinary life. At the same time, there's a strong sense of an author setting things up for a possible sequel.

Such cynical thoughts aside, this is a lovely book. I enjoyed it very much, and I'd have delighted in it as a teenager. As a disclaimer, Don Bredes - whom I otherwise don't know at all - contacted me and asked whether I'd like to review Polly and the One and Only World. Perhaps he sensed a kindred spirit, given my own oft-stated worries about theocratic government and the ongoing socio-political influence of religion. He was right about that much, but I wouldn't praise his book if it weren't genuinely strong. Bredes has legitimate concerns about his country's future - he is not a mere fearmonger - and he's transmuted them to make a fine, suspenseful story.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

New Charlie Hebdo cartoons attract uncharitable responses

It's beyond me how people of good faith could interpret this as anything other than savage satire of European attitudes to refugees from the Middle East. And yet, once again, we see preening, authoritarian busybodies treating Charlie Hebdo in the most uncharitable way, as if, on this occasion, it were making fun of the drowned Syrian child.

Obviously we could debate whether the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoons are (in the immediate circumstances) in good taste, whether they might have some perverse psychological effect (i.e. an effect contrary to their artistic purpose), and so on. I doubt, however, that the original French audience would have misunderstood the satirical force of what they saw this week.

The mainstream and social media are, unfortunately, rife with people who will "call out" speeches, cartoons - and many other forms of expression - in the most harsh and simple-minded ways. Some of this must result from a lack of cultural sophistication: an inability to understand such things as irony (sometimes including unstable irony), complexity, artistic convention, and framing. But there is also the disastrous urge to provide signals of tribal righteousness.

[Edit, 20 September: I've now written about this at considerably greater length on the Cogito blog. I'll repost on this site when I have a minute.]

Monday, September 14, 2015

Most Australian voters are not influenced by religion

Russell BlackfordUniversity of Newcastle

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Rationalist Association of New South Wales and the Humanist Society of Queensland has found that only 14 per cent of Australians were influenced by their religious beliefs the last time they voted.

In a press release issued on 9 September 2015, representatives of the two organisations express their doubts about the political strength of the religious vote and the idea that politicians must “live in fear” of it.

Max Wallace, the Vice-President of the Rationalist Association of NSW, said that the results cast doubt on the notion of an influential, across-the-board Christian, or Catholic, first preference vote in Australia. Wallace said, “It does not automatically follow that a majority of Catholics, say, in various electorates, will vote as one for political parties whose policies echo those of the church.”

He added: “I suggest the widespread indifference to religion when voting, squares with what we know about Australians' support for voluntary euthanasia, gay marriage, and their very low, regular church attendance.”

The President of the Humanist Society of Queensland, Ron Williams, said that there might be electorates in Queensland with a statistically significant cohort of evangelicals and Pentecostal voters. These could make a second preference difference in a marginal seat, but that was not certain and would depend on how marginal the seat was.

A breakdown of the survey results shows that 5 per cent of respondents said they were “very much” influenced by their religion, while 9 per said they were “somewhat” influenced.

Another 60 per cent said they were not influenced at all, while 26 per cent said that the question was not applicable to them. Among Catholics, the “not influenced at all” group was 84 per cent. However, there was more indication of influence from Muslims and from Pentecostal, evangelical, and fundamentalist Protestant Christians.

It would be useful to have more data before drawing strong conclusions as to whether there has been any electoral impact from religious views on, for example, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, or abortion rights. I don’t discount the possibility of some impact, since even a small number of votes can make a difference to finely balanced results. At the same time, even people who are influenced by religious beliefs need not feel pushed to oppose (say) euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Some religious voters might, for example, be influenced to support government programs that ameliorate the effects of poverty.

Overall, the survey suggests that religious beliefs play only a minor role in voting at Australian elections. If so, the degree of solicitude shown to the religious lobby by Australian political leaders may be out of proportion to its ability to deliver votes.

At a more philosophical level, it appears that most Australian voters, whether or not they are personally religious, are secular in the sense of supporting secular government. From my viewpoint, that is pleasing news. It suggests that most Australian voters do not embrace a model of politics in which the government chooses the “correct” religion (and religious morality).

The survey data tends to confirm that most religious people in Australia - as well as most nonbelievers - accept the government’s role as one of providing worldly protections and benefits. For most Australians, otherworldly concepts to do with sinning against God, spiritual salvation, and the like, are private matters - they have little, if any, role in secular politics.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Only 14 per cent of Australian voters influenced by religious belief

The figure above comes from a survey conducted on behalf of the Rationalist Association of NSW and the Humanist Society of Queensland. It can be spun in more than one way, of course, but it's still an interesting figure. Clearly, and overwhelming majority of Australians - including those with religious beliefs - are not voting along religious lines.

I'm planning to say a bit more about this over at Cogito.

Edit: Post at Cogito now made. I'll also republish it here when I have a minute.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Mystery of Moral Authority confirmed from Palgrave Pivot

As previously announced, I have a contract with Palgrave Pivot for my monograph on fundamental moral philosophy, The Mystery of Moral Authority. I delivered the manuscript in late June, and I received confirmation yesterday that, following external peer review, it has received a "strong recommendation" for publication.

The book will now go ahead, and if all falls into place it should appear late this year. Palgrave Pivot specialises in producing relatively short and focused academic monographs (this one is about 45,000 words), and it highlights an expedited publication process once a manuscript is accepted. I'll thus be spending the next couple of months taking the book through the pipeline (with copyediting, etc.).

Needless to say, I'm excited by this news. Palgrave Pivot is a respected academic imprint with some very fine authors. The book itself sets out my views on important issues to do with the nature and function of morality, the relationship between morality as an observable social phenomenon and philosophical ethics, the illusions that affect much of our moral practice and language, how we should respond to our awareness of these, and so on. Every book that I write or edit is dear to my heart, but this one perhaps more than most.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” - that is, the leaders of various religious organisations - have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:
  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;
  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and
  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.
Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her - possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death - whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise - can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome - perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful - that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members' views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force - more than the line actually taken by Welby - it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority - intellectual, moral, or otherwise - in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square - they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy - but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound - though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Where microaggressions come from

Yet again, I'm mainly bookmarking an article for future reference. But this piece by Jonathan Haidt looks very interesting, whether I end up agreeing with it all or not.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Currently reading: Philosophy Goes to the Movies, by Chris Falzon

I'm reading the new (third) edition of Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy, by my colleague at the University of Newcastle, Christopher Falzon.

I'm biased to the extent that Chris is not only a colleague - he also comes across in my dealings with him as a smart, always pleasant, and disarmingly modest bloke. With that disclaimer out of the way, this book really is very good. It's impressively erudite, but written with a light touch. It would provide an excellent way to introduce an older teenager to philosophy (especially if he or she also had an interest in cinema), or it would make a great textbook for a foundational course in philosophy at college or university level.

Those evil white middle class males

So, I had a look at my Twitter feed just now. Someone whom I know and like has a Tweet complaining about politicians who wax lyrical regarding freedom of choice until it comes to rights to choose abortion or voluntary euthanasia. Fine, I appreciate that sentiment. There are, in fact, too many people (some with political power) who are all for freedom until it comes to some of the most important freedoms of all: the freedoms to make major decisions about our own lives, such as whether to go on living with a debilitating, terminal disease, or whether to continue with a pregnancy and become a mother.

So far, so good. I agree.

But then someone whom I don't know, but who has a male name, has retweeted this with an additional message: "Freedom of choice as defined by white middle class males."

Jesus Christ on a hamburger bun! Not every damn thing has to be about identity politics and standpoint theory. I'm sure that there are plenty of people who are not white, or not middle class, or not male, or not any of them, who are opposed to abortion and euthanasia. Indeed, it is very often women who are most vocal in opposing euthanasia and (especially) abortion. Opposition to euthanasia and abortion is not about race, gender, or social class. Very often, it is based on ignorance or a lack of imagination. Often, too, it is based on religious morality.

Likewise, plenty of people who happen to be white, male, and from the middle class are fully supportive of choice in these areas. For a start, I am supportive of it, and last time I looked I was white and male. Despite my working class origins, I also count as middle class these days: I'm educated, and I've managed over the years to accumulate some screw-you money. I know many white, middle class men who have the same views on these topics. I'm confident that any properly conducted survey would show much support for abortion and euthanasia from my demographic, as well as much opposition from others.

Can we please just - at least some of the damn time - address issues in detail and on their merits?  I have done so here, with euthanasia, and I have done in the past with abortion, stem-cell research, and other crucial issues in human bioethics. Our detours from reasoned argument are damaging to the culture of discussion in the public square. It's way past time to get back on the main road.

Blog post on physician assisted suicide

I've now published my post on this over at Cogito, the philosophy blog hosted by The Conversation. Check it out! I've answered Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in some detail, following his anti-euthanasia article a couple of days ago.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Archbishop of Canterbury on physician assisted suicide

This post relates to another article that I'm linking to mainly for future reference. In it, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sets out his case against physician assisted suicide. Check it out by all means, and see whether he convinces you. The man is obviously intelligent, as you'll see, but this never-ending battle by religious leaders and organisations gets tiring and annoying. So, of course, does their self-serving rhetoric, such as the usual claim that they and their communities have "a profound sense of compassion." Give me a break!

Most importantly, religious leaders have no particular authority - intellectual, moral, or otherwise - with issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders such as Welby are, of course, experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice whatsoever with the rest of us as citizens (who are perfectly free to reject any and all religious doctrines) or with government officials who are charged with formulating and administering the secular law.

I'm planning to write a longer response to Welby's article over on the Cogito blog, so stay tuned for that. Once it's written, I'll link to it here for those readers who tend to look here first.

The Monsters of Jurassic World

This article was originally published on The Conversation on June 20, 2015. Read the original article. Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle.

Philosophers and blockbusters

There are at least three reasons why philosophers take an interest in hugely popular cultural products such Hollywood blockbuster action movies. First is a kind of (non-objectionable) opportunism. At least some of these movies, etc., grapple with philosophical issues: usually moral issues, but sometimes metaphysical and epistemological ones, such as those relating to personal identity or to the problems of appearance versus reality. If these are brought to public attention in very popular forms, it provides an opportunity for philosophers to discuss - and perhaps clarify - them. There’s nothing wrong with that: the exercise may be enjoyable, and even educational, all round, though the various discussions that follow may not tell us much about the actual merits of the movie (book, video game, or whatever) that acted as the springboard.

Second, there might be more to the exercise than mere opportunism. If certain moral, metaphysical, and other philosophical ideas are being popularised, philosophers may well be qualified to discuss the merits of those ideas, whether to support them, to counter them, or to say something about them that is more nuanced and complex. Here, the creators of a movie such as Jurassic World are being treated as participants in an ongoing philosophical conversation. The movie is not used merely as a springboard; rather, its particular take on the issues is sought out, revealed, and perhaps endorsed or disputed (or some combination of these).

Third, we may be interested, in a more general way, in how artworks and cultural products engage with philosophical ideas. In that sense, our interests as philosophers may overlap with those of literary and cultural theorists, although we bring different training to the inquiry. For example, I am interested in the way Jurassic World conveys attitudes to technology, not merely as a springboard to discuss those attitudes, and not merely to discuss those particular attitudes on their merits - I am also interested in it as an example of how cultural products generally, movies in particular, and science fiction blockbusters even more specifically, represent technology. Perhaps there is something of general interest to say about this, and a new movie with such popular appeal might tend to confirm or undermine what we think we know.

In practice, we may be interested in all three of these aspects and perhaps others that don’t immediately come to mind. If I review Jurassic World, say, as I did briefly on my personal blog, I will tend to run these levels together to an extent. Still, philosophers might have something to say that is a bit different from what you’d expect from a conventional film critic (that said, philosophers often have rather broad educational backgrounds, including in cultural criticism; conversely, I’m sure that many film critics have studied philosophy to some extent or other - we don’t live in entirely separate intellectual silos).

The Jurassic formula

The Jurassic Park franchise has achieved immense commercial success, though the second and third movies were never as popular as the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jurassic World is breaking box office records on a daily basis, most recently, as I write, the record for box office takings in the US domestic market in its first seven days of release. Something has clicked with the public, not only in the US but throughout the world. Part of that has to do with the fact that these movies are just plain fun - scary enough to make kids, or even adults, jump out of their seats, but not too confrontational to rule them out as family entertainment. They are expertly directed, employ impressive special effects (brought up to date in the latest movie - alas, the 1993 effects are looking a bit dated by now), and use charismatic actors such as Chris Pratt.

There is also a morality play element, often highlighting the characters' attitudes to technology. Many characters are killed swiftly - they are pretty much treated as dino fodder - but elaborate, and often humiliating, deaths are given to the characters who appear most venal or blinded by pride. (Perhaps the most humiliating death of all is given to the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in the first movie.) Other characters are shown as having moral weaknesses, but they are punished (by their terrifying encounters with the rampaging dinosaurs) and ultimately redeemed. All of this is no doubt emotionally satisfying to a popular audience.

Thus, the dinosaurs are not portrayed simply as “bad guys” or monsters. To a large extent, they are more like instruments of fate, or something like karma, inflicting rewards and punishments. It is fair to say that the real monsters of Jurassic World and its predecessors are the human beings who exploit genetic technology in ways that are portrayed to us as greedy, vain, and irresponsible.

Attitudes to technology

The genetic technology used to reconstruct dinosaurs from fossilised DNA is fairly consistently portrayed as evil - the whole exercise in recreating the dinosaurs from ancient genetic material has something monstrous about it, or so the movies would lead us to believe. But there is an ambiguity here, a certain instability of attitude, because the dinosaurs themselves are not only dangerous and terrifying. Some of them are relatively harmless, and they are shown variously as fun, exciting, alluring, even sublime. This kind of allure associated with products of technology is almost inevitable in feature movies with a technophobic element (a point that I owe to the critic J.P. Telotte). After all, we, as moviegoers, are much like the audience of the Jurassic World theme park: we expect to be impressed and awed by the dinosaurs, not just scared by them.

This is a common feature in Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters. Even in the movies of the Terminator franchise, the original Terminator - a futuristic killing machine in human form, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger - has its alluring aspects. A similar machine, also portrayed by Schwarzenegger, became a hero in the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Terminators are scary and nasty, as we are shown, but they are cool.

We can see this element handled with a certain knowingness in Jurassic World, where the scary new dinosaur, Indominus rex, is not an attempt at recreating a beast from the Mesozoic Era, but has been genetically engineered as a theme park attraction that will be even more impressive than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex. In the event, Indominus rex is depicted as an almost demonic creature, and it is notable for killing other dinosaurs for sport (recalling perhaps, the human big game hunters of the second movie in the series). At the same time, we are reminded that all of the dinosaurs created by advanced genetic science are, in more ways than one, unnatural. Not only are they products of human design and creation: they have been brought about in ways that make them imperfect (in some ways more dangerous) copies of the original animals that they mimic.

Still, the Indominus rex is even more - perhaps triply? - unnatural, with its deliberate “improvements”. To rub in the point, its enhanced abilities include extraordinary levels of stealth and cunning, as well as the cruelty that was asked for in its specifications.


Hollywood science-fiction blockbusters can often seem like works of anti-science fiction, expressing distrust of science and technology. Indeed, this can be seen in much science fiction in other media, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly two hundred years ago.

But technology is also seen as impressive and attractive - and perhaps as simply inevitable - whatever dangers it brings to societies and individuals, and however much it may be misused in the service of vices such as greed and pride. This ambivalence continues in much contemporary science fiction with cyberpunk or dystopian emphases. Themes of danger, irresponsibility, and dehumanization are prevalent, but the result is often, for better or worse, also shown as something cool (and this may be exploited in publicity and merchandising).

The technophobic/technophilic ambivalence is especially prominent in many Hollywood productions, where moral lessons - valuable or otherwise - play a secondary role to SFX magic and sheer spectacle.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Philosophy versus science versus politics

by Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle.

We might hope that good arguments will eventually drive out bad arguments – in what Timothy Williamson calls “a reverse analogue of Gresham's Law” – and we might want (almost?) complete freedom for ideas and arguments, rather than suppressing potentially valuable ones.Unfortunately, it takes honesty and effort before the good arguments can defeat the bad.

Williamson on philosophy and science

In a field such as philosophy, the reverse Gresham’s Law analogue may be too optimistic, as Williamson suggests.

Williamson points out that very often a philosopher profoundly wants one answer rather than another to be the right one. He or she may thus be predisposed to accept certain arguments and to reject others. If the level of obscurity is high in a particular field of discussion (as will almost always be the case with philosophical controversies), “wishful thinking may be more powerful than the ability to distinguish good arguments from bad”. So much so “that convergence in the evaluation of arguments never occurs.”

Williamson has a compelling point. Part of the seemingly intractable dissensus in philosophy comes from motivated reasoning about the issues. There is a potential for intellectual disaster in the combination of: 1) strong preferences for certain conclusions; and 2) very broad latitude for disagreement about the evidence and the arguments.

This helps to explain why many philosophical disagreements appear to be, for practical purposes, intractable. In such cases, rival philosophical theories may become increasingly sophisticated, and yet none can obtain a conclusive victory over its rivals. As a result, philosophical investigation does not converge on robust findings. A sort of progress may result, but not in the same way as in the natural sciences.

By way of comparison, Williamson imagines a difficult scientific dispute. Two rival theories may have committed proponents “who have invested much time, energy, and emotion”, and only high-order experimental skills can decide which theory is correct. If the standards of the relevant scientific community are high enough in terms of conscientiousness and accuracy, the truth will eventually prevail. But if the scientific community is just a bit more tolerant of what Williamson calls “sloppiness and rhetorical obfuscation” both rival theories may survive indefinitely, with neither ever being decisively refuted.

All that’s required for things to go wrong is a bit less care in protecting samples from impurity, a bit more preparedness to accept ad hoc hypotheses, a bit more swiftness in dismissing opposing arguments as question-begging. “A small difference in how carefully standards are applied can make a large difference between eventual convergence and eventual divergence”, he says.

For Williamson, the moral of the story is that philosophy has more chance of making progress if philosophers are rigorous and more demanding of themselves, and if they are open to being wrong. Much philosophical work, he thinks, is shoddy, vague, impatient and careless in checking details.

It may be protected from refutation by rhetorical techniques such as “pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision, or winning informality.” Williamson prefers philosophy that is patient, precise, rigorously argued, and carefully explained, even at the risk of seeming boring or pedantic. As he puts it, “Pedantry is a fault on the right side.”

An aspiration for philosophy

I think there’s something in this – an element of truth in Williamson’s analysis. Admittedly, the kind of work that he is advocating may not be easily accessible to the general educated public (although any difficulty of style would be from the real complexities of the subject matter, rather than an attempt to impress with a dazzling performance).

It’s also possible that there are other and deeper problems for philosophy that hinder its progress. Nonetheless, the discipline is marked by emotional investments in many proposed conclusions, together with characteristics that make it easy for emotionally motivated reasoners to evade refutation.

If we want to make more obvious progress in philosophy, we had better try to counter these factors. At a minimum that will involve openness to being wrong and to changing our minds. It will mean avoiding bluster, rhetorical zingers, general sloppiness and the protection that comes from making vague or equivocal claims.

This can all be difficult. Even with the best of intentions, we will often fail to meet the highest available standards, but we can at least try to do so. Imperfection is inevitable, but we needn’t indulge our urges to protect emotionally favoured theories. We can aspire to something better.

Politics, intellectual honesty, and discussion in the public square

There is one obvious area of discussion in modern democracies where the intellectual rigour commended by Williamson – which he sees as prevalent in the sciences and as a worthy aspiration for philosophers – is given almost no credence. I’m referring to the claims made by rivals in democratic party politics.

Here, the aim is usually to survive and prevail at all costs. Ideas are protected through sloppiness, rhetoric and even outright distortion of the facts, and opponents are viewed as enemies to be defeated. Purity of adherence to a “party line” is frequently enforced, and internal dissenters are treated as heretics. All too often, they are thought to deserve the most personal, microscopic and embarrassing scrutiny. It may culminate in ostracism, orchestrated smearing and other punishments.

This is clearly not a recipe for finding the truth. Whatever failures of intellectual dishonesty are shown by philosophers, they are usually very subtle compared to those exhibited during party political struggles.

I doubt that we can greatly change the nature of party political debate, though we can certainly call for more intellectual honesty and for less of the distortion that comes from political Manichaeism. Even identifying the prevalence of political Manichaeism – and making it more widely known – is a worthwhile start.Greatly changing the nature of party political debate may be difficult because emotions run high. Losing may be seen as socially catastrophic, and comprehensive worldviews are engaged. By its very nature, this sort of debate is aimed at obtaining power rather than inquiring into the truth. Political rhetoric appeals to the hearts and minds – but especially the hearts – of mass electorates. It has an inevitable tendency in the direction of propaganda.

To some extent, we are forced to accept robust, even brutal, debate over party political issues. When we do so, however, we can at least recognise it as exceptional, rather than as a model for debate in other areas. It should not become the template for more general cultural and moral discussions – or even broadly political discussions – and we are right to protest when we see it becoming so.

It’s an ugly spectacle when party politics proceeds with each side attempting to claim scalps – demonizing opponents, attempting to embarrass them or to present them as somehow disgraced, forcing them, if at all possible, to resign from office – rather than seeking the truth.

It’s an even more worrying spectacle when wider debate in the public square is carried on in much the same way. We should be dissatisfied when journalists, literary and cultural critics, supposedly serious bloggers, and academics – and other contributors to the public culture who are not party politicians – mimic party politicians' standards.

If anything, our politicians need to be nudged toward better standards. But even if that is unrealistic, we don’t have to adopt them as role models. Instead, we can seek standards of care, patience, rigour and honesty. We can avoid engaging in the daily pile-ons, ostracisms, smear campaigns, and all the other tactics that amount to taking scalps rather than honestly discussing issues and examining arguments. We can, furthermore, look for ways to support individuals who have been isolated and unfairly targeted.

High standards

At election time, we may have to vote for one political party or another, or else not vote (formally) at all. But in the rest of our lives, we can often suspend judgement on genuinely difficult issues. We can take intellectual opponents' arguments seriously, and we can develop views that don’t align with any of the various off-the-shelf ones currently available.

More plainly, we can think for ourselves on matters of philosophical, moral, cultural and political controversy. Importantly, we can encourage others to do the same, rather than trying to punish them for disagreeing with us.

Party politicians are necessary, or at least they are better than any obvious alternatives (hereditary despots, anyone?). But they should never be regarded as role models for the rest of us.

Timothy Williamson asks for extremely high intellectual standards that may not be fully achievable even within philosophy, let alone in broader public discussion. We can, however, aspire to something like them, rather than indulging in the worst – in tribal and Manichaean – alternatives.

Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

An article on Dyson Heydon's situation and apprehended bias

I'm linking to this article published over at The Conversation mainly for my own future reference. It's a rather strange piece because:

1. It provides quite a powerful explanation and defence of the practice whereby decision-makers are, in the first instance, asked to consider for themselves whether to recuse for apprehended bias: the obvious alternatives would be inefficient, and could also have perverse effects.


2. It then concludes: "The idea of a judge determining the credibility or completeness of their own version of events is simply indefensible."

No it isn't! By this point, the author has just told us how the traditional practice can be defended on grounds related to justice and efficiency. To be fair, she suggests reforms rather than completely abolishing the practice. But again, this tends to show that the situation is not "completely indefensible" even if there is a case for some reforms. There are good reasons for it and for not tampering too much with it. The issue is not black and white.

I'm not, for the purpose of this post, taking a stance on any substantive issue in the current political controversy. Perhaps Heydon's decision not to recuse from the current Royal Commission into the unions will be overturned by court proceedings. I could put an argument why the case against him is weak, but I could also put an argument as to why there are nonetheless some exceptional circumstances that might justify it scraping over the line. As so often with legal disputes, there are considerations either way.

Meanwhile, it's just odd that writers sometimes feel the need to offer a hardline, strongly expressed, "punchy" conclusion when the whole direction of the argument they've just put is, rather, to the effect that there are various pros and cons to consider. This journalistic practice may not always be "completely indefensible", but it's often unnecessary and polarising.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road wins international film critics award

I'm not sure exactly how big a deal this is, but it looks pretty big. The Federation of International Film Critics' Grand Prix Award for Best Film of the Year sounds impressive, and the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where it will be presented, is an important festival in Spain.

I was pleasantly surprised by Mad Max: Fury Road. I had not great hopes for it, but I loved it.

Why can't men shut up about abortion?

Note: This post was first published at Talking Philosophy, back in September 2013. It attracted a long and passionate discussion thread that may, itself, be of interest.

Why won’t men just shut up about political issues to do with women’s reproductive rights, particularly about the legality of abortion? After all, we (us blokes) are not directly affected by a ban on having an abortion, so why should we get a say in whether someone else gets to have an abortion or not? Furthermore, we are not epistemically qualified to have an opinion on the matter – how can I, as a man, imagine what a woman goes through when confronted by the prospect of becoming a mother against her will? How can I understand the responsibility, the anxiety, even the fear with which the woman – perhaps a confused and terrified teenage girl, or perhaps a traumatised rape victim – may be faced?

And if I can’t understand it, really, viscerally understand it, what gives me the right to open my big mouth about it?

So the arguments seem to go. This has become a popular meme: I’m confronted on a daily basis with claims, whether in the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, or in the mainstream media, such as newspapers, with the claim that men should simply shut up about these issues and leave it to women to make the decisions. I don’t know how this would work, but I suppose we might imagine a world where men make no arguments one way or the other about the goodness, badness, rights and wrongs, or political tolerability of abortion. Perhaps laws would be enacted only by female legislators, with men abstaining from all votes in houses of parliament and the like.

As it happens, though, I don’t plan to shut up. One reason for that is that I am actually pro-abortion, so I don’t see why I should shut up unless all those anti-abortion men reach a deal with me to do likewise, and there’s not much prospect of that. In fact, any man who took the arguments seriously as to why men ought to shut up about abortion would probably be one who is already inclined to favour legal abortion, so the argument, if it persuaded anyone at all, would probably have a perverse effect, shushing exactly the wrong men – as seen from the likely viewpoint of the argument’s proponents.

I suppose the argument does accomplish one thing. It problematises whether or not men have the experience or imagination to understand why it is so important for women to have abortion rights; and that might, I suppose, make some anti-abortion men hesitate. While it is not likely to shut them up entirely, some of them might ask whether they are, in fact, imaginatively restricted, and whether they are, therefore, not properly weighing the interests at stake. Some might even attempt to stretch their imaginations to try to get a better concept of what it might be like to be confronted with the sorts of choices that women frequently encounter.

As it happens, men often do have pretty good imaginations (with rich experiences of anxiety, fear, inner turmoil, crushing responsibility, and so on, to draw upon), and I’m not at all convinced that we’re unable to imagine something of what it must be like, if we genuinely try. Indeed, some men may be better able to imagine it than many women who have never encountered the situation and perhaps are not sympathetic. If we are prompted to stretch our imaginations, I submit that that’s a good thing.

At the same time, the argument may (here is a second thing) serve the cause of feminist solidarity, encouraging resentment at unimaginative and unsympathetic men who pay little attention to the interests of women. While the argument cannot be taken literally, we might think, it plays a useful role in expressing resentments, attracting solidarity and participation, and rallying women to the political cause.

That’s all fine, but the fact remains that the argument can’t be taken literally. Anti-abortion men are likely to be driven by convictions that will keep them talking no matter how much we tell them to shut up. After all, some may believe that they are carrying out the will of God in opposing abortion. Now, if they’ve read some books about secularism (such as mine!) they just might be persuadable that this does not provide a proper basis for the state to act, but whether they’re persuadable will depend on their deeper theological views. Secularist arguments may appeal to many believers (I certainly hope so, and I think there is a fair bit of historical and sociological evidence that they can), but surely not to all. And even if Mr. Believer thinks that certain arguments should not support action by the state to prohibit, say, abortion, he might still think that they support social or moral condemnation of some kind. In that case, he can take a secularist approach to law-making, but it won’t shut him up about his moral convictions.

Furthermore, many opponents of abortion, irrespective of their sex, can imagine the highest level of anxiety, fear, difficulty, inner turmoil, and so on, for someone who is forced to become a mother against her will, but still oppose abortion. These opponents of abortion are likely to think that abortion is equivalent to murder, or at least something very like murder, in which case they will say that none of the interests of the woman can justify it. However bleak my future may be if I fail to murder someone, that does not usually give me the legal right to do so. There are exceptions for self-defence, but analogies between abortion and self-defence are notoriously tricky and contested.

As it happens, I don’t think that abortion is anything remotely like murder. The trouble is that I don’t see why someone who disagrees with me ought to shut up about it. If he or she holds a contrary position in good faith, and is prepared to back it with arguments, then s/he not only has the legal right to do so, but perhaps also has some legitimate claim on the rest of us to listen (at least if we haven’t heard and considered it all before). And if this (let’s say male) person is truly convinced that abortion somehow harms a fetus much as our deaths would harm us, surely it’s unreasonable for me to expect him to hold his tongue about it. It might be relevant to try to get him to imagine what is at stake for women who contemplate abortions, but even if he tries and succeeds it might not shake his conviction (even though he might, I suppose, come to feel a bit more sympathy and speak with more compassion).

In the upshot, the argument that men should go quiet about abortion may have a role to play if it is not taken literally. That is, if it is used as a challenge to men to use our imaginations or recognise our imaginative limits, and/or if it is used as a way to rally supporters and encourage feminist solidarity. If taken literally, however, it does not have much merit. Anti-abortion men can’t reasonably be expected to shut up, given their likely reasons for the positions that they take and the religious, moral, and/or metaphysical beliefs that their reasons draw upon.

I think there are other problems, too. I doubt that any serious thinker about contemporary politics can avoid taking positions that then entail views on the abortion debate. Keeping entirely silent may not be a practical possibility once you start thinking and talking about almost any other set of fraught political issues. In any event, I won’t go quiet about abortion any time soon. I am one man – obviously one among many – who will go on defending women’s reproductive rights, most certainly including robust abortion rights.